BY ANY MEASURE, HOUSTON’S FOTOFEST HAS grown into a cultural behemoth. This year’s edition of the sprawling, month-long biennial, which was on view in March, ranged as far afield as Galveston and Beaumont and comprised some 160 separate exhibits at about 140 sites, from NoHo warehouses and suburban shopping malls to Montrose restaurants and almost all of the area’s museums and commercial art galleries. Founded in 1983 by husband-and-wife documentary photographers Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss (who still run the show), FotoFest is now the oldest citywide photography festival in this country and one of the largest globally, with a well-deserved reputation for seeking out forgotten masters and emerging talent from all over the world—and for a discriminating sense of photography’s traditions. So it mattered that “FotoFest 2002: The Classical Eye and Beyond,” while not ignoring the classic silver-gelatin print, emphasized the “beyond,” giving the FotoFest imprimatur to the “new media,” the digital-age art that only last year broke into the art-world equivalent of prime time with splashy museum debuts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The first major exhibition of new media on Texas soil, FotoFest was also the first major new-media exhibition of 2002, and it did look like more than just a rehash of last year’s Next Big Thing. The mix of media threatened to get messy—videos playing from the backs of rental trucks or projected onto the sides of buildings; a live performance collaboration between a deejay and a veejay (video jockey); a collection of Internet sites organized by the Whitney Museum’s curator for new media, Christiane Paul; and French photographer Georges Rousse’s intricately calculated sculptural constructions that, when photographed with an old-fashioned large-format camera, yield an ironic paradox: unretouched “straight” photographs that look just like computer-generated graphics. Yet despite some organizational snafus in meeting opening deadlines, once everything was up and running, the overall impression was one of clarity and command, with production values that were often as slick as the best commercial advertising and messages that transcended the mere shock of the new. All of a sudden, technological art—once the proverbial dog walking on its hind legs, notable because it was done at all—was being done well. It was impossible to stroll the streets of Houston in March and not feel the seismic cultural moment, a sense that this Next Big Thing might really be the next big thing.
At its simplest, the new technology allows photographers to scan their images into their computers and rework them with the same kind of pixel-manipulating image-editing software that allows amateurs to remove the red-eye from their snapshots. Seattle artist Anna Ullrich, who works for Adobe Systems—the maker of the Photoshop software that dominates high-end digital-image editing—showed off seemingly every tool in her employer’s bag of tricks with a series of poster-scale prints composited from scanned images of fabrics, household objects, old photographs, and newsprint. From this quotidian stuff, Ullrich creates ornate, bejeweled-looking virtual collages, icons of an almost tantric feminist mythology, where preposterously garbed female goddesses reign over exotic landscapes occupied by miniature male minions and make-believe machinery that might have been imagined by Jules Verne or H. G. Wells. The visual references are multifarious—Frida Kahlo, Max Ernst, Indian mythology, Victorian valentines, Hieronymus Bosch—but the combination is no mere indigestible pastiche, the stale postmodern “image appropriation” of the past two decades. The digital toolbox enables Ullrich to seamlessly cut, paste, layer, and artificially light wildly disparate images, fusing them into a picture as intellectually fantastic yet visually plausible as the paintings of Salvador Dalí.
But at FotoFest 2002 the still picture, however imaginatively conjured, seemed like a twentieth-century anachronism. Wisconsin-born, New York-based Oliver Wasow used the convergence of two technologies that have recently become plentiful and cheap, the DVD player and the flat-panel LCD monitor, to create electronic “prints” that appeared to hang on the gallery partitions (actually, the small-footprint monitors and DVD players could be concealed inside the walls) and at first glance might have been taken for still images of fantasy interiors and otherworldly landscapes; a swimming pool, for example, somehow contained a rocky, wave-swept beach. On closer inspection the picture was even more surprising; the waves actually rippled, to the sound of crashing surf. In their Protracted Image: Big White Pine, Houston digital media pioneers MANUAL (Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom) offered a more ironic, conceptual take on this new kind of moving picture. Programming a computer to animate more than 1,600 digital still images of a pine tree that were shot in a Vermont forest at a progressively later hour each day over a nine-week period from late August to early November, Hill and Bloom created a perversely extended form of time-lapse photography. Projected on a gallery wall at FotoFest’s Vine Street Warehouse headquarters over a seven-hour period each day, the big pine slowly registered the changing seasons and the days’ deepening shadows, but during any given visit a viewer found the endlessly permutating, computer-generated picture as apparently immutable as a nineteenth-century landscape painting.
The plasma screen television, still far too expensive for widespread use, offers a flat, wall-mounted display much larger than an LCD screen and much more self-contained than a wall projection. New Yorker Martha Burgess, another digital pioneer, showed the plasma screen’s potential in Nocturne, opus no. 23, “moonlighting,” a five-minute video moodily set to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. While a narrator recites a noirish tale about the murder of two boys, abstract black and white images of streetlights and car lights jitter across the screen, an echo in an entirely original form of the mordant sensibility of Robert Frank’s fifties road-trip photo essay, The Americans, which for decades set the tenor of American documentary photography.
But the two-dimensional, with-sound moving picture may itself be a dated concept. To make Dusted, shown at the Museum of Fine Arts’ Glassell School, New Mexico-based filmmaker Peter Sarkisian originally placed a nude couple inside a Plexiglas cube and shot them with five video cameras, one